Earlier this week, each of our staffers listed a position group that they were most concerned with, along with a position they felt was well-stocked and well-manned heading into the spring. The 15 spring football practices, along with some off-the-field issues, had a definite impact on those areas. First, we'll look at the "no-worries" selections:
Three staffers picked the defensive secondary as the group it was least concerned about heading into the spring, and nothing happened over the practice period to lessen any of that confidence. In fact, play on the back end of the defense probably just added to the positive vibes emanating from the group.
Even though Daryl Worley and Jarrod Harper sat out the spring, backups got a ton of reps and practice work, helping them solidify their roles -- and perhaps even challenge for more time. While Worley, along with Terrell Chestnut, will definitely be the starters at corner, Ricky Rumph had the best spring of his career, establishing himself as a reliable backup who can give either starter a rest and also play in passing situation packages. Nana Kyeremeh also had something of a reboot, while safety Jeremy Tyler was among the contenders for "best spring performer" as he battled Dravon Henry at free safety. Barring a monumental drop in performance, the deep secondary will be truly "two-deep" this fall, meaning little or no drop-off in performance when subs hit the field. Add in junior college defensive back Rasul Douglas, and this position is probably the best on the team.
Pre-spring losses of Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie were offset by the expected emergence of Donte Thomas-Williams, and Jacky Marcellus' move to the backfield as a change of pace option further strengthened the running back group. The only negative? Short yardage conversions, at least in open sessions of spring practice, continued to be a problem. Whether that's on the running backs or offensive line is open to some debate, but other than that the Mountaineers appear to be just as strong, if not stronger, in the backfield as they were a year ago. Also, fumbling -- a bugaboo in 2014 -- was not as pronounced during the 2015 spring session.
A lone voter thought the emergence of added depth along the offensive line would help make that group a position of strength. Some of that came into fruition over the spring, as Stone Underwood and Grant Lingafelter emerged, and were mentioned by the coaching staff, as being ready to play and contribute significantly. On the down side, however, Russell Haughton-James, who was in a battle with Yodny Cajuste for a starting tackle slot, was arrested just after practices concluded and charged with burglary. Resolution of that case is still pending, but for now his team status has to be considered at least questionable. Also trending negative is the fact that some other backups didn't progress as quickly as hoped, so for now it's difficult to see a WVU line that is more than seven players deep -- still a good distance from the hoped-for ten. If transfer Kyle Bosch achieves eligibility, he could provide some additional support, and H-J's return (he can fill in at any of the non-center spots) could help further.
Fortunately there don't appear to be any panic-level areas of concern, but enough exist to make West Virginia's Big 12 fortunes this year difficult to predict. With enough positive answers, some of which were seen this spring, the Mountaineers could contend for a spot near the top of the league.
Stopping the run and generating a pass rush were mentioned as key concerns here, and both saw improvement over the spring. WVU's line was able to hold its ground and prevent sustained drives in many of the open scrimmage sessions, and was particularly stout in red zone work. While it is difficult to judge the true effect of the pass rush when quarterbacks aren't subject to be hit, enough "proximity sacks" and pressure were shown to give rise to some optimism on that front. While West Virginia's lack of beef remains a concern, there are as many as eight players who could contribute in a meaningful way this season -- a marked improvement over previous years.
Jordan Thompson was solid and on an upward arc through the spring, Daikiel Shorts grabbed an outside receiver spot and Shelton Gibson had his moments, but reliable and consistent productivity remained an elusive goal for this group, which doesn't figure to have one player to match either Kevin White or Maro Alford's accomplishments of 2014. That means a team effort, but coming out of spring there's a large gap between the Thompson\Shorts\Gibson trio and the rest of the depth chart. That's still a big concern, as no one else had much more than an occasional grab to base a claim for playing time on. Incoming freshmen will certainly get a chance to make their mark come August.
The identity of the starter was revealed in the spring, with Skyler Howard seizing the role on the basis of better operational control and command of the offense. While that might appear to be a negative for now-backup William Crest, it could also end up in the plus column, as the multi-talented athlete could see the field at other positions. Still, questions remain about Howard's accuracy, which was up and down through the spring, just as it was during his time as a starter at the end of 2014.
In one way, though, having a starter identified before summer could be a big plus in terms of team leadership, continuity and familiarity. Howard will have the chance to establish himself even more solidly in all of those roles as he organizes workouts and throws to his primary receivers. Still, the final results will be judged on the field this fall, and it's there where his accuracy and ability to move the offense will get the ultimate assessment.